Scott Tuinstra, project manager at Balance Studios, developing an educational game to teach kids about agrivoltaics.
Scott Tuinstra, project manager at Balance Studios, developing an educational game to teach kids about agrivoltaics. Credit: Balance Studios / Courtesy

A team led by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers is developing an educational game it hopes can inspire future farmers to think differently about solar power.

The app aims to teach kids the emerging concept of agrivoltaics, in which agricultural production is combined with solar photovoltaics. The game will be backed by science from the growing niche of research looking into how solar panel placement affects the growth of various crops.

“Dual-use land is really a great idea, intuitively, so why not build an app that lets kids explore these really interesting ideas while they’re playing a game?” said H. Chad Lane, associate chair for educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Think FarmVille, but instead of gamifying every aspect of running a farm, it will focus on the interaction between crops and solar panels. Researchers are discovering that several plant types can perform better when partially shaded by panels; for others, the reduced production can be offset by extra revenue from selling solar power to the electric grid.

The app is part of a $10 million, multi-disciplinary project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, which is interested in evaluating agrivoltaics’ potential to reduce land-use tensions, boost crop yields, or increase revenue for farmers. 

The initial version will simulate an agrivoltaics operation in Arizona, and subsequent updates will include Colorado and Illinois scenarios. Players inherit a farm at the start of the game and then make decisions about crop selection and solar panel spacing before seeing the resulting output.

“We want to make sure that the game is accurate for both the process of farming and behavior of crops, and how all the biological processes are impacted by the use of solar panels on the farm,” said Scott Tuinstra, a project manager at Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Balance Studios, which the researchers enlisted to work on building the app.

Steven Thomson, national program leader in the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Institute of Food Production and Sustainability, said the project aligns with the agency’s goals of promoting sustainable agriculture and innovation to help farmers adapt to climate change. 

“The research explores an emerging agricultural system that could increase crop production and return on the land while helping mitigate climate impacts,” Thomson said. 

The federal institute awarded the four-year grant to the University of Illinois, which spread the funding across multiple departments. The education department pitched the app idea. Part of the grant’s overall objectives include education, from kindergarten to graduate school, as well as the general public, Thomson said.

Carl Bernacchi, an Illinois researcher who studies climate change’s impacts on crops, recruited Lane to the project based on his research on teaching tactics, which he thinks could help bridge public knowledge gaps on scientific topics, including climate-conscious agriculture and agrivoltaics.  

“There’s been a huge disconnect in the work that I do … with getting it to the minds of K-12 students,” said Bernacchi, a research plant physiologist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s really hard to distill complex science down into something accessible to children — even adults.” 

Targeting a young audience is a longer-term strategy that could lead to a culture change, rather than expecting immediate change. 

“When you’re trying to change a culture — and agricultural practices are very much culturally driven — it’s going to take not just reaching out to the farmers who are making decisions today, but it’s also planting the seeds and educating the next generation of farmers,” Bernacchi said.

The team is trying to strike a balance of delivering easily digestible information while making sure it’s factual and not watered down. One challenge is that agrivoltaics is a relatively new practice. Rich datasets about best practices and successful crops aren’t yet complete. The app development team plans to continually update the game based on emerging scientific research.

Tuinstra said the game will rely heavily on symbols instead of words, considering people generally don’t like to read much when using such technologies. That approach will also make the game more accessible to younger learners who do not yet read at a high level.

“We don’t really need to go into a lengthy description about how some crops may need water because they’re out in the sun more than those that are in the shade or have greater water retention in the soil,” Tuinstra said. “By playing the experience, you’ll come to that logical conclusion.”

The app will undergo its first real-world testing this fall at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the St. Louis Science Center, which both have agricultural and energy exhibits. Museum visitors will get to play the prototype during a process called formative testing, in which student responses to a learning tool or method are monitored to determine if the tool is meeting its targets while identifying areas for improvement.

Insights about audience responses, including what they don’t understand and like, will be incorporated into the next version of the app with more user choices and scenarios. The team aims to take the app public on the Apple Store and Google Play store in three years.

Meantime, the team will continue to build up the app as additional cutting-edge agrivoltaics research is released.

“We’ll constantly be revising the understanding of everything, and we can go in and tweak the models in the game to reflect that emerging science,” Lane said. “I don’t know of any other game that’s ever tried to do that.”

Katie is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. With a special focus on science and the environment, she covers a variety of topics, including waste and recycling, energy, transportation, sustainability, technology, and innovation. Her work has appeared in publications including CityLab, National Geographic, Scrap magazine, Smart Cities Dive, Transport Topics magazine, Utility Dive, and Waste Dive.